Music festivals typically take place in parks, cow pastures or sports arenas. But this weekend, indie band Wilco is trying something different: an art museum. A big one.
They're coming to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in the northwest corner of the state. And it's not just them — they've put together an event called the Solid Sound Festival, and, as MASS MoCA Director Joe Thompson says, the band is doing more than just playing music.
"We sort of pretended to be collaborators on this, but it’s a very narrow pretension,” Thompson admitted, quite happily. “I think we suggested a couple of bands and maybe one or two of ours made it on the list, but this is essentially a Wilco-curated event from top to bottom.”
As “curators,” Thompson said Wilco is transforming the mammoth 200,000 square-foot museum into a playground for musicians and music lovers.
The melodic, beautifully noisy band has a rabidly loyal fan base, and this weekend is the band's only appearance on the East Coast this summer. That means thousands of fans are expected to descend on MASS MoCA, and the quiet town of North Adams, this weekend.
Wilco lead singer and guitarist Jeff Tweedy is still somewhat amazed that MASS MoCA said yes to the weekend-long festival concept. It was band manager Tony Margherita's idea, explained Tweedy. Margherita, a big fan of the Berkshires and a part-time resident of nearby Northampton, drummed up the Solid Sound pitch and presented it to Thompson.
“The fact that we could kind of take over the whole place was pretty exciting,” Tweedy said. He and his Wilco-mates got to select some of their favorite bands, comedians and films. But they also made art for MoCA's galleries — like an interactive guitar pedal installation called the Solid Sound Stompbox Station. A retrospective of Wilco concert posters, Polaroids of the band and a drum exhibition are also on deck.
”All the different artistic, creative aspects of the band, and the things surrounding the band, are gonna be on display,” Tweedy said, “and I thought that that seems like a pretty rare thing to be able to find a place that would facilitate all that.”
It's probably “rare” because turning a giant art museum — and its sprawling 14-acre campus — into a Wilco-palooza venue is a logistical gauntlet: Multiple stages, lighting, sound equipment, food vendors, beer trucks, portable toilets, garbage cans.
So, why did Joe Thompson and MoCA take it on?
“We see ourselves literally as a platform for all kinds of art and music, and we admire the band and the kind of music that they make," Thompson said. "And more selfishly, there are a lot of new people who will show up over this weekend who haven’t been here before.”
No one knows exactly how many people will show up, but I’m told more than 6,000 festival passes have been sold so far. Eight thousand were available initially. Fans are purchasing them through independent websites run by Wilco and MASS MoCA — no Ticketmaster or Live Nation here.
With the masses looming, the museum's 60 employees have been scurrying around “cleaning house” and doing double-duty before their guests arrive.
In a basement workshop, Richard Cridell half-joked that MASS MoCA has never been so tidy. He's the museum's director of Fabrication and Art Installation. “But in these sort of hard-pressed pre-Wilco days, I seem to be chief sign-maker,” he said, amused.
Cridell is making purple and blue signs for satellite parking lots. Festival traffic is a major concern, and the museum has gone to great lengths to prevent backups.
But Cridell, like many people in North Adams, is hardly a Wilco fan. ”I’ve got to admit something, I’m ignorant of Wilco. I hope to be impressed."
The city is hoping to impress the throngs of Wilco fans visiting this weekend — without ticking off too many locals in the process.
”I think the residents are more worried about making a living, frankly,” said local artist Jarvis Rockwell, the son of painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell.
The 78-year-old lives just outside town, but I bumped into him as he was installing his retrospective of drawings and action figure sculptures in an art space on Main Street. For the Wilco fest, most all of the galleries in North Adams are staying open much later than usual.
“The gallery's going to be open until two in the morning,” Rockwell marveled. “I can't believe that!”
But Rockwell won't be there.
“I'm sorry,” Jarvis said with a sincere, hearty laugh, "I'll be sound asleep at that hour.”
A lot of restaurant and shop owners will be awake, though, hoping to serve the post-concert crowds. Brian Miksic heads the business association Develop North Adams, and he's been working hard to get the city ready for the invasion.
Sitting on a newly installed street bench outside his wife’s store, Miksic says businesses are banking on a bump from the Wilco crowd.
“This is a small town,” he said. “This is a town of 14,000 people. And so my wife’s little children’s boutique on a average Saturday has 50 people walk through the door. When you have 8,000 people in town, or 6,000 people, there’s just no way that there’s not going to be a bump, you know?”
Stressing the point, Miksic added, “If 100 of those people walk through our store, that could double her day. And that’s serious.”
It's serious for all of North Adams. The town sank into an economic hole after the Sprague Electric Factory closed in 1985. MASS MoCA eventually took over the abandoned industrial complex, which helped to boost the local economy. Then the recession hit. Now some people are saying the Solid Sound Festival is the best thing to happen to North Adams since MoCA opened 10 years ago.
Musician Nick Zammuto is one of them.
He’s half of The Books, a local experimental duo on the Solid Sound bill. Paul de Jong is the other half.
Zammuto has a home just across the border in Vermont, but spent many years living in North Adams. He even recorded one of The Books’ seminal albums, “The Lemon of Pink,” in the pantry of a rundown, $300-a-month apartment just up the hill from MASS MoCA.
Zammuto said the museum has supported The Books’ music for years. He and de Jong have performed on the museum's permanent stage many times.
"And to kind of see North Adams go from the late '90s when MASS MoCA didn’t exist 'til now, it’s been an unbelievable journey for the town, and it’s been largely powered by art and music,” Zammuto said. "To see it come to fruition in this way is a real satisfying thing.”
It will also be satisfying — and a little nerve-wracking — for The Books to premiere songs from their brand new CD, "The Way Out," in front of thousands of people.
Zammuto thinks Wilco and MASS MoCA make a good match because the band and the museum are creative risk-takers — but also laid back and kind of mature. By all accounts, the three-day festival stands to be civilized and family-friendly.
Even so, the town is deploying extra police, and the museum hired extra gallery guards — just in case .
Tweedy said there probably won't be any fist fights at the festival, but given the disposition of Wilco fans, he joked, “There might be some hurt feelings and some passive aggressiveness. A few tears.”
If all goes well Wilco, MASS MoCA and North Adams want to make the festival an annual event.
If you go this weekend, Jeff Tweedy encourages you to visit him at the dunking booth.
This program aired on August 13, 2010.